Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Beer Name Game

As a homebrewer I never was much for naming my beers.  I don't know why but it just wasn't my thing.  Maybe it was the impermanence of a 5 or 10 gallon batch of beer that wouldn't be around for more than a few months that made it not worth bothering with a name.  Or maybe since I usually tweaked recipes from one brew session to the next it wasn't worth it to name an "unfinished product".  Not that I have a problem with people giving their homebrews names, it just wasn't for me.  For competitions I would just enter my beers by their style name such as "Robust Porter" or "Northern English Brown Ale". 

Well that doesn't really work in the world of professional brewing.  For legal and marketing reasons you gotta call it something.  Naming my beers after their style seems a bit boring and since a lot of what I brew doesn't fit into exact style guidelines it wouldn't be real feasible anyway.  Lucky for me I've been compiling a list of possible beer names for a few years now.  Some are specific names that fit a certain style or flavor characteristic, some are interesting plays on words, and some are just words or phrases that "sounded like they would make a good beer name".  I have compiled a pretty big list and keep adding to it regularly.

The trick is out of all those names probably about half of them will be unusable.  Not necessarily because they are vulgar, violate TTB rules or just don't make sense (although there are some on the list that qualify in this regard), but because they are already in use.  See there are a little over 1900 craft breweries operating in the U.S. right now.  If you assume (conservatively) that each brewery has 5 standard beers and 5 seasonal beers that's nearly 20,000 beer names that are in use.  Well that generally means all the "easy" names have already been taken.  But how do you know?  Well as luck would have it the TTB has a name search directory that can help you check for already registered labels.  However, as with many things in the TTB, it isn't exactly the most useful tool.  It is an exact name search which means you have to search for the exact name to see if anyone is using it.  That means you have to try all the different variations and spellings you can think of to make sure you aren't naming a beer RYESING SUN when there is already a beer named RYSING SUN (hypothetical example).

But who cares you say?  So what if there's a beer in Ohio named Hoppin' Wheat and a beer in California named Hopp'n Wheat (hypothetical example)?  Breweries and their trademark lawyers that's who.  Trademark law can be a real "sticky wicket" as they say.  There's a lot of in's and out's but the gist of it is if someone else was using it first and they think your name is too close to theirs (which is very open to interpretation) they can sue you for infringement, even if you had no idea they existed or have no plans to ever sell beer in a market that they service.  Ignorance is no excuse for the law as they say.  So, when naming a beer you have to not only check every derivation of it you can think of in the TTB directory but it's also a good idea to search Google/Yahoo etc.  just to be sure.  While you're at it a search of the US Patent and Trade database probably isn't a bad idea either.  Even then you have to hope you did a good enough job researching so you don't get into trouble later.

This scenario works for brewery names as well.  Blank Slate was actually the third name I came up with for the brewery (actually my friend Chad came up with it).  Several years back I was looking to use the name "NO LABEL BREWING COMPANY" so I did a bunch of searching and found it wasn't in use.  Fast forward a few years and when I was getting ready to incorporate I decided to double check.  Sure enough, somebody had started using it.  You snooze you lose I guess.  There are a lot of examples out there of others who had to change their names after they were already doing business.  There was recently a brewery in Louisiana that changed its name from "PELICAN BREWERY" because there is apparently a brewpub in Washington called the "PELICAN BREWPUB".  Even though the chances of either brewery selling beer very far outside of their own state is slim, in this "globalized world" in which we now live I guess this is just how it goes.  In our litigious society sometimes even very loose relationships between names can cause someone to change theirs.  I just read this past week about a new brewery in Columbus that was changing their name from "BORN BREWING" because Rolling Rock has a trademark on the slogan "BORN SMALL TOWN".  Seems like pretty shaky grounds to claim infringement but just to be on the safe side (since Rolling Rock is owned by Budweiser who has LOTS of lawyers) they changed their name to "SEVENTH SON".  Of course a quick search of that name yields a brewery in Florida named "SEVENTH SUN" so we'll see how that works out. 

So the next time you pick up a beer and think "what's in a name", the answer is generally "a lot of research and lawyers"....

As for me, maybe I should use a random word generator for all my beer names to avoid any legal entanglements.  Anyone up for drinking a "BATHROBE AGGRANDIZING METRONOME"?

OK, maybe not....

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Now the hard part begins...

If you haven't been following me through other social media outlets (twitter, facebook) I'm sorry for filling you in on this so late but it turned out to be a big week this past week.  We got the burner situation straightened out sooner than originally expected (thanks to the good folks at Stoermer-Anderson).  The electrical inspector was pleased so I was able to get my final building inspection last Wednesday and low and behold IT PASSED!  So what's next?  What other regulatory hurdles are left before we can get this thing off the ground?  The answer - NOTHING!  That's it, we're done.  City building occupancy was the last regulatory step and now, its complete!

Part of me feels a little weird.  For the last year I have been so focused on construction and permits and licenses that now that it's all done, I feel like part of me doesn't know what to do.  Sure there's still a few "projects" to put together but for the most part my focus must now shift to the truly hard part of opening a brewery - actually operating it....

Once the final inspector left, everything suddenly became very "REAL".  See, for me, the nuts and bolts of putting the brewery together were the "easy" (relatively speaking) part.  Now I have to deal with marketing and sales and invoices and inventory control and on and on and on.  These are the areas of running a business that are a little less in my "wheelhouse" so to speak.  It's not that I don't know how they work, it's just that I don't have a lot of experience doing them.  Let's just say that researching the finer points of credit card merchant accounts isn't my strongest suit, nor do I find it very fun.  But hey, if I only did the fun stuff I would have run out of things to do a long time ago.

Of course the operations side has always been in my mind and things have been in motion for months to get everything set up.  Now that the permit process is over though it really has to kick into high gear.  It wasn't an hour after the building inspector left that I was on the phone ordering 5,000 pounds of grain and 250 pounds of hops.  Even though the taphandles were ordered weeks ago (and still haven't arrived) I'm still working out the final details on the labels for them.  I've been brewing a few pilot batches so that I can have samples to take to potential customers.  I even have the first of what will be a few meetings with distributors next week (more on that another day).  The tanks need their final cleaning and we need to run a few water tests through the whole system to make sure everything goes where it's supposed to.  So even though we've moved into the next "phase" of start-up there's still lots to do.  If all goes well we should be brewing a batch by the end of this next week.  As far as an official launch, that still isn't fully decided but should be in time for American Craft Beer Week which is May 14-20.

I modified the tagline of the blog today to say "starting (and operating) a brewery is exciting and scary at the same time".  For as scary as getting this thing started has been, operating it is even scarier...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dead in the Water.....

I have been purposely vague when the question of "when will you be open" gets asked.  Since you can't ever say for sure until all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed I have been cautious not to commit to a specific launch date.  Sure I've had a timeline in my head ever since last March when I first registered the business.  At that time the best I would say to anyone was "probably winter 2011/2012".  As things began to progress with construction I began to narrow it down to "late first quarter 2012".  Even as recently as the beginning of March I was optimistic that there would be beer in the fermenter by March 31st, just in time for an early April launch.  That would put me pretty close to what I was thinking over a year ago.  Not a bad guesstimate if you ask me.

Being ever the pessimist I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Something to come along to screw everything up.  I previously mentioned the issues I had with the walk-in refrigeration back at the beginning of March.  Well after much consternation and many a phone call, we now have the "right" refrigeration system.  Unfortunately that turned out to be a three week mistake by the original supplier.

So the "new" target brew date became the first half of April.  Disheartening, but still not too far off the original estimate...until I had my electrical inspection last Friday.

Let me back up for a minute.  In order to conduct business in my place I must have a city building occupancy permit.  This is essentially the final culmination of the building permit process that "blesses" your building for use.  It started way back in August with the overall building permit application.  It was promptly denied due to a few minor things that were missing on the drawings.  After an architect revision and a few other hoops we had permission to start work in early October.  The plumbers and electricians then procured their permits and we were off and running.  An inspection of the bathroom framing, plumbing and electrical was needed before we could drywall.  That was done in December.  Once all the fixtures are installed you must get a final plumbing and electrical inspection and then finally, a final building inspection.  The final plumbing was done in February - no sweat.  The building and plumbing inspections are done by the city and believe it or not they have been great to work with (so far).  The electrical inspection is done by an outside company called IBI (Inspection Bureau Inc.) and from what I can tell Cincinnati is the only municipality in the US that "outsources" their electrical inspections.  Instead of the inspections being done by a city inspector who gets paid by the hour they are done by a for profit company that gets paid PER VISIT.  That means if they have to inspect you more than once, they get paid more than once.  This incentivizes the inspector to find at least one thing wrong so that they get to come back.  Ahh, the "free enterprise" system at work.

Due to the snafu with the walk-in, I couldn't get the final bits of wiring done until late last week.  When the electrical inspector came he had an issue with the gas burner on my kettle.  Apparently it is not UL (Underwriters Labs) listed.  UL is the little insignia that you see on extension cords and other electrical devices that lets you know it is approved for use in the US by an independent third party.  The inspector will not sign off without seeing a UL listing for the burner.  The problem is the burner was made in China (with German components) and does not have a UL listing.  It has a CE listing which is the European Union equivalent (and is actually more stringent than UL from what I can tell), but that apparently doesn't fly here in the good old U.S. of A.


I have worked as an engineer in a few factories in my day.  I was involved with UL a little bit in my last job as we had to maintain a UL listing for the products we made so I am somewhat familiar with the process.  In an industrial environment very little equipment is UL listed.  A factory contains a lot of custom built equipment, often from foreign manufacturers, for which you will find no UL listing.  It is specialized equipment and would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming to have every individual piece of equipment certified by UL (certification costs start at $4,500 per item and go up from there).  But what can you do?  You can't argue with an inspector or they will make your life a lot worse.

So what DO I do?  Well it looks like the path of least resistance is to buy a new burner that is UL listed.  After a few frantic calls the folks at Stoermer-Anderson (shameless plug) are setting me up with what I need.  Unfortunately it is going to take a few weeks to get here.....

Ugghh.  So the "new new" brew date is probably more like the end of April.  That's assuming the electrical inspector signs off on it and we don't have any issues with the final building inspection (which is a big assumption).

Don't get me wrong, I knew crap like this would come up, but it still sucks when it does.  I'm so close I can almost taste it and I'm at the point where time costs more than money.  So in the meantime I'll keep working on little projects, and continuing to try and find the hops that I need (a story for another day).

As far as the original question of "when will you be open".....let's just leave it at...soon....

Caution: "Dangerous Equipment"